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It’s time for an Australian Widening Participation Statement of Ethics

Maria Raciti, USC

Australia’s widening participation (WP) agenda is decades old and it is championed by a dedicated community of WP practitioners and scholars. It is a community that I am proud to be a part of. In 2022, it would be fair to say that the WP community is pandemic-weary and fatigued by the demands of continuous change as these days it seems like there are more unknowns than knowns. Despite the magnitude and velocity of change, WP practitioners remain strong and committed to keeping the doors of opportunity open for priority groups who are underrepresented in Australian higher education.

Today, the WP landscape looks very different to pre-pandemic times. It would be easy to frame the context negatively, focusing on losses, but that doesn’t help anybody. Let’s focus on the gains — the newfound opportunities for WP as we are no longer encumbered by the old “grand script”. Like many, I’ve been taking stock and reflecting on the next best step for WP. I’d like to share my thoughts.

Anecdotally, WP practitioners and scholars observed growing concerns about the risks of going to university by people from priority groups. This heightened sense of risk is because of pandemic induced volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (known as VUCA). VUCA has played out across the sector and WP in various ways. For example:

  • Volatility refers to the rapid and unexpected change that is often reactionary, such as lockdown-induced switching to online learning and teaching.
  • Uncertainty refers to pending changes (known unknowns) such as the implications of fast-made changes in the years to come, the relevance of pandemic-tainted ATARs on course entry requirements and the roll-out of course rationalisations.
  • Complexity refers to the presence of more decision points, such as deciding which blended learning combination to select.
  • Ambiguity refers to the difficulty of predicting the outcome of a choice as the relationship between cause and effect is not apparent (unknown unknowns), such as the role of higher education as an entry requirement to emerging occupations.

VUCA will stay as a permanent feature of post-pandemic WP. So, let’s consider strategies and tactics for a VUCA future. These strategies may take the form of protocols for WP practitioners regarding information transparency and fidelity, how information is communicated (and thus promises made) to priority groups and the focus and timing of outreach enrichment activities. A national protocol that helps with expectations management would also be helpful. However, such WP VUCA strategies require a solid foundation in the form of a shared understanding of ethics. Indeed, one glaring omission from the Australian WP agenda is a Widening Participation Statement of Ethics.

I recommend the following ethical principles as a starting point for a national conversation among WP practitioners and scholars about the nature, scope and future of our work.

Recommended principles for an Australian WP Statement of Ethics

  • NONMALEFICENCE — Do no more harm to people underrepresented in higher education
  • RESPECT — Respect people’s rights, sovereignty, privacy and choices
  • SOCIAL JUSTICE — Pursue social justice to manifestly reduce higher education inequality
  • INTEGRITY — Professional and personal conduct of the highest standard.

To help start the conversation among the WP community, I offer the following question bank. What are your initial thoughts about these principles? Are these principles important? Would a WP Statement of Ethics benefit practitioners and scholars? What is missing? Are there underlying assumptions that need to be fleshed out? Does this reflect current WP ethical  practices? Are these principles relevant now and sustainable in the future? Would a Statement of Ethics help the WP community make decisions? Are these principles realistic and achievable in everyday practice?

As VUCA times are here to stay, I encourage you to ponder and have conversations among, and beyond, the WP community about my recommended principles for an Australian WP Statement of Ethics. Foundational frameworks like a WP Statement of Ethics articulate and shape current practices and, more importantly, are a powerful legacy that set up the next generation of WP practitioners and scholars for success.

*This blog is based on: Raciti M. (2022). Recommendations for reducing higher education inequality in a post-pandemic Australia. In Australian Association of Social Marketing Viewpoint Vol (pp. 16-20). Australian Association of Social Marketing.

Posted 13 April 2022 Posted in General